Monday, 26 November 2012

A Miniature World

A few months ago one of the photo magazines I subscribe to printed an article on how to produce 'planet' panoramics.  The idea is to produce a 360 degree panoramic image and turn it on itself to produce a round image that looks like a mini planet.

Bahrain International Circuit

It doesn't work with all subjects and it has to be a strong image to work properly so I decided to try this technique at the final three circuits of the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship - Bahrain, Fuji and Shanghai.

The ones in Bahrain and Fuji worked well because I was using a D700 with a 17-35 f2.8 set at 17mm.  The one in Shanghai was taken on my Fuji X100 using the 35mm (equivalent) lens, which really wasn't wide enough.

The technique is fairly easy -

  • Take overlapping images in a 360 degree rotation.  It is easier on a level tripod but it can be achieved handheld with a little patience.  The problem comes when you join the ends, they have to match at the join.
  • Stitch the 19 or so images into a long panoramic image.  Crop the ends so when the image is turned into a 360 degree image the ends match.
  • Invert the image so it is upside down
  • Resize the image so it is square (ie make the height of the image the same as the length.
  • Using the 'Polar Coordinates' filter in Photoshop (and Elements) turn the image into a 'Planet'.
  • Remember to flip the image horizontally as the resulting picture from the Polar Corordinates filter is back to front.
This technique produces a Planet Panoramic like this one - 

Fuji International Speedway
Shanghai International Circuit
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Sunday, 25 November 2012

TEST: Handling the Noise

All digital cameras have sensors that can be set by the user for sensitivity using a setting called ISO.  The higher the number the higher the sensitivity to light which means a photographer can take pictures in lower light. The trade off is what is referred to 'noise' in the image, artefacts that, in the days of film, was referred to 'grain'.  This has the effect of lowering the quality of the image.  On the flip side of this particular coin, the lower the ISO number, the less noise and the better quality final image.


The test subject - a 1:36 scale Mini Miglia Corgi model


The way a camera handles 'noise' is also dependent on a number of factors. The first being the size of the sensor and the number of pixels that is packed onto that sensor.  For example a mobile phone cameras sensor or simple digital point and shoot are tiny compared to normal cameras.  Manufacturers pack millions of pixels onto these tiny sensors but the downside is the fact they cannot handle low light photography very well.  Remember just because a sensor has more megapixels than a rival doesn't mean it will take better pictures.

The advantage of higher ISO numbers is the ability to set a higher shutter speed in low light.  For example if you were taking a handheld low light shot and you were getting an exposure reading of 1/8s @ f4 ISO 200, chances are the image would be blurred and unusable due to 'camera shake' - the blur effect that is caused when the photographer can't keep the camera rock steady while the shutter is open.  If you make the ISO setting on your camera 1600, then the same exposure would be 1/60 @ f4 and the chance of camera shake is mainly eliminated.

Digital SLRs are split into full frame (same size as old 35mm film) and crop frame (APS-C) (1.5x smaller than full frame) but both are larger than the smaller sensors used on mobile phones and most compact cameras.

The purpose of this blog was to test the capabilities of my newly purchased Fuji X100.  This isn't a 'navel gazing' scientific test but an image comparison test to see how the final results look in the real world.

I own a Nikon D700 12.1 megapixel full frame DSLR, which is one of the best low light digital cameras on the market and can be pushed up 25600 ISO.   This is due to the large size of the full frame sensor and the modest 12 megapixel count, which means the pixels aren't so tightly packed together.  

The Fujifilm X100 has a specially developed APS-C 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, which is large for a compact size camera, and one of things I have noticed is how well the camera handles noise even though the size of the sensor is smaller than the D700s.  The range is 200 to 6400 ISO, which can be extended to 100 and 12800 but only for jpeg images.  

I decided to try a little test shooting an image of a Mini Miglia Corgi model at 100, 400, 1600, 3200 and 12,800 to see how big a difference there was at these different settings.  As I shoot RAW rather than JPEG I tend to default to ISO 400 for handheld but will drop down to ISO 200 in bright light or when the camera is attached to a tripod.  To be honest there is no discernible difference between these two settings, I just prefer to shoot at 200, which gives me maximum quality, when taking landscapes on a tripod and I don't have to worry about camera shake.

Here are the test shots I took at each of the five settings I chose and I've enlarged the centre portion of each image to show the effect of the higher ISO setting on the image.


ISO 100

ISO 400

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 12800
As can be seen by these shots the images produced across the entire ISO range are more than usable - even at 12800 - with very little noise right up to 1600, with just a hint at 3200.  In Shanghai I found myself shooting with the X100 handheld at 1600 or 3200 without hesitation and the images the camera produced are outstanding.  As I said this isn't a scientific test but a real world test to see the effects at each level.

Whatever camera you use don't be afraid to shoot at high ISO settings.  It is better to have a noisy picture where the subject is sharp than miss the shot because the subject is blurred.  Noise can be dealt with quite well in post processing but nothing will make a blurred image sharp again.

I am off on my business travels again this week, heading off for three days in Marrakech.  I hope to be able to visit some of the sites while I'm there and I will update the blog when I can.


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Friday, 23 November 2012

Moon Lit Night on Mull

This image was taken on the Isle of Mull on our last trip to the island at Easter.  There was a full moon and the clouds over the Sound of Mull parted to produce a fantastic moon lit scene.

Nikon D300s - Sigma 18-50 f2.8 - 30s @ f5.6 - ISO 100 - Tripod

Putting the Nikon D300s and 18-50 f2.8 Sigma on the tripod I took several long exposure images of 30 seconds or more and the result was a very surreal moonlit shot of Calve Island in Tobermory Bay with the Sound of Mull stretching away in the background.  There was a fair breeze so the clouds were moving across the scene, which can be seen in the long exposure and the moon looks as bright as the sun.
 
Hope you like the shot.
 
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Picture of the Week: Alnwick Castle Mono

In the past few months we've visited England's most northern county on three occasions as we've discovered the joys of Northumberland, a beautiful part of the UK that is only three hours up the A1 from where we live in Lincolnshire.

Alnwick Castle - Nikon D700, 17-35 f2.8, 1/125 @ f8, ISO200, Lee 0.6 ND Soft Grad

In August we had a family day in Alnwick.  One of the draws of the town is Alnwick Castle, which is famous for where they filmed the outdoor scenes at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.  Perched on a hill overlooking the river Alnwick Castle doesn't look like Hogwarts from the outside but it is a perfect example of a medieval English castle on the frontier with Scotland.

We paused to admire the scene while heading back into Alnwick and also so I could photograph the castle from the river bridge.

There will be more from Northumberland on this blog soon.

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Monday, 19 November 2012

REVIEW: Accessorise the X100

Over the past month I have been trying out the Fujifilm X100 in various situations and finding that the more I use this camera the more I find myself admiring the many features that Fuji have built into it.  However there are a couple of items that I've added to make the X100 a little more flexible and also found that some of the items that Fuji supply aren't all that useful.
The Fujifilm X100, WCL-X100 and EF-20 Flahgun
WCL-X100
I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about the WCL-X100 wide angle converter and the non standard item I purchased for £15 from Hong Kong from eBay.  This was a poor choice as the image quality matched the price I paid and I have since purchased the official converter. And what a difference it makes! 

The WCL-X100 screws onto the existing lens on the camera and once fitted it looks seemless.  The converter turns the 23mm f2 (35mm in full frame terms) into a 19mm f2 (28mm) without any loss in quality. 
X100 with Standard 23mm f2 lens

X100 with WCL-X100 Wide Angle Converter added to the camera.

With the cheap lens the edges of the pictures were badly distorted but with the WCL-X100 the pictures are pin sharp edge to edge.  You have to upgrade the camera's firmware to 1.30 which includes a setting to use the converter but this is easy and painless via the Fuji website.
The front lens of the WCL-X100 also has a 49mm filter thread so the UV lens that comes with the 'Black' Limited Edition can be used to protect the front element.
Here are two images I took, one at 19mm (with the converter) and one at 23mm (without the converter) to show the difference in the field of view. 

Grantham, taken on the standard 23mm f2 Fujinon lens
Grantham, taken with the WCL-X100 fitted making the lens a 19mm f2.
For landscapes 28mm is a very useful focal length and the here is another sunset shot taken using the WCL-X100. 
Sunset over Grantham - X100 fitted with WCL-X100 converter
The WCL-X100 is a perfect match for this superb camera and increases the versatility of the X100 even further.

FUJIFILM EF-20 FLASH
While the X100 has an adequate onboard flash, it is quite low powered (Guide number of 6) and gives harsh shadows due to it being only usable straight onto the subject.  However the X100 does come with a hotshoe to fit external flashguns.  Fuji make two dedicated flashguns for the X100, the EF-20 and the EF-42. 

Being such a small camera, a normal flash gun would overwelm the X100 and while the EF-42 has a bigger guide number of 42, from the pictures I've seen, the flash does look a bit comical when fitted to the camera. 
X100 fitted with the EF-20 Flash, which is angled at 45 degrees in this shot
I decided to purchase the lower powered EF-20, which, as the name suggests, has a guide number of 20, which is adequate for most situations.  It is also quite small and comes with an intergral defuser, for softening the light output, and also the head swivels through 90 degrees so the light can be bounced off the ceiling, which can also improve the light output.

I haven't had much opportunity to test this little flash fully yet but already the EF-20 is a useful addition to the X100.  I will be attending the FIA Awards Gala in Istanbul on the 7th December and this is where the X100 and EF-20 will get their first serious test but here is a shot I took at the weekend using the EF-20.

OTHER ITEMS
The X100 Black Limited Edition comes with a number of extras, including a Fujifilm neck strap and a black leather retro camera case.  Both items look the part but in reality I have left them both in the original box for the following reasons.

CAMERA STRAPS
I found the neck strap that comes with the X100 simply gets in the way when using the camera.  I don't tend to have the camera around my neck and when taking pictures I found myself constantly pushing the camera strap out of the way of the viewfinder or the screen.  On a recommendation from another Fuji X Series user I purchased a black leather wrist strap, which I've found is a much better way of using the X100 securely.  

The 'Footprint' strap I decided on was handmade in the UK from the finest quality English bridle leather and I chose the black version to match the camera, though other colours are available.  This was an eBay purchase for £14.99 (+£1.99 P&P) and I can highly recommend this to anyone who is looking for a top quality wrist strap.  More details HERE.

CAMERA CASE
The black leather retro case that comes with the camera is a quality item and goes perfectly with the look of the X100.  However I found it to be completely impractical.

The bottom half of the case can be used separately to protect the X100 but with it in place you cannot access the battery / memory card compartment, which is a pain.  The top half of the case will only fit the X100 properly if the lenshood is removed first and even with the 49mm filter and adapter ring in place the cover fails to sit properly.  This, for me, is a serious oversight by Fuji, the company should've provided the lens part of the case with more room to accomodate these extras.

My solution was to buy a padded camera case that has a belt loop or can be used with a should strap.  I also have a small shoulder bag that can accomodate the X100, the EF-20, WCL-X100, spare battery and memory cards, Gorilla Pod mini tripod and Cokin P Series ND grads and ND filters. 

CONCLUSION
There are plenty of accessories for the X100 and I've found some are useful and others not.  Just because I don't find something useful doesn't mean another photographer wont have the opposite reaction.  This blog is purely my own opinion on how I use the X100. 

All I can say is the X100 has taken my photography in a new direction since I bought it last month. I have even found myself questioning whether I need all Nikon DSLRs and associated lenses and started costing up the Fuji X-Pro1 (the X100s big brother with interchangable lenses).  The full frame Nikon is a superb tool for the two types of photography I love - landscape and wildlife - and it would be difficult for the X-Pro1 to replicate the flexibility of the Nikon in these two areas, especially wildlife. 

However the X100 is a superb travel / street / landscape camera and the addition of the WCL-X100 and EF-20 flash has improved this even further.  I will be on my travels once again, with business trips to Morocco, Istanbul and Paris  in the coming weeks. I will post further updates on the MacLean Photographic blog so please keep checking back.


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Friday, 16 November 2012

It's All in the Detail

Sometimes the most mundane of items can be photographic gold. Whether it is seaweed on a beach, a padlock on fence or an old mooring ring on a harbour wall, these can all come to life with a bit creativity. 
 
Fujifilm X100 - 19mm f2 - 1/50 @ f4 - ISO 1000
 
Take this old fence post I found on a recent walk in Grantham.  This was tucked away in a hedge and was rotten, gnarled and quite beautiful in a strange way.  Added to the condition of the wood was the rusty nails and U pins that were used to hold the barbed wire.  It was these details that made it the perfect photographic subject.
 
Fujifilm X100 - 19mm f2 - 1/25 @ f5.6 - ISO2000
 
Putting the X100 on macro mode to get some close up images I shot at f4 or f5.6 to give a shallow depth of field.  To keep the shutter speed a reasonable level I also had to push the ISO to 2000 because the fence post was under cover in the hedge and the light levels were quite low.  However this provided me with yet another demonstration of the capabilities of this awesome camera, the noise levels were very low and very controlled - I don't think the D300s, which has a similar sized sensor, would've coped with the situation as well.
 
So when you are out and about with your camera, look out for the little details to focus on, you never know when you will strike gold.

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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Morning Reflections in Tobermory - A Winning Image

Earlier this year I entered a Facebook competition run by photographic retailer Jessops to find the five best regional images from around the UK - South of England, North of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  I entered my favourite shot from our trip to Mull in December and was judged to be the best entry for Scotland.
 

 
Yesterday Jessops put up the five regional winners and asked visitors to vote for their favourite and 'Morning Reflections' received the most votes and the image is now the cover picture for the Jessops Facebook page.
 
The picture was taken on a very cold 27 December 2011.  I got up just before dawn and headed down to the harbour.  The scene was so peaceful, with just a couple of other people up and about (the rest were probably sleeping off their Christmas hangovers).  While we have visited Mull on several occassions in the past few years, this was our first winter trip.  If this had been May or August the scene would have been very different with more people on the island and boats in the harbour.
 
Anyway enjoying the peace and quiet I headed out to the end of the small quay and set up my tripod to capture the dawn light on my Nikon D90 and 18-50 f2.8 lens.  I was ready to go when the sun started to filter through the clouds over the Sound of Mull (to the right of me in the picture) and I set about capturing the scene.  I fitted a 0.6 ND Grad and also a 0.9 ND filter to give me a shutter speed of 30 seconds @ f 11.  I managed to fire off three shots before the light changed but it was the first of these that gave me the best shot.
 
I stayed and shot the sunrise for the next hour but I knew the shot of the harbour front had made the early start worth it.  I put the RAW image into Photoshop but all I had to do was tweek the curves and contrast and that was it - the final shot was more or less how it came out of the camera.  I was very pleased to have an image of a well photographed scene that was somehow very different from the standard.
 
My prize for winning the Jessops UK in Pictures competition was a canvas print  and the 70cm x 50cm print now sits on my wall just to remind me everyday of the most beautiful place in the world.  I travel a lot with my job but Mull is my favourite place and I look forward to our next trip in May.

'Morning Reflections' is available as a limited edition canvas print.  For more details visit the MacLean Photographic online shop HERE.

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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Eating Out in Japan

One of the highlights of the trip to Fuji for the penultimate round of the FIA World Endurance Championship was the team dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant. 
 


This was an authentic Japanese meal with Japanese traditions rights down to taking your shoes off before entering the restaurant.  The tables were slung low to the floor with cushions to sit on but there was a pit under the table so we Westerners didn't have to sit crossed legged at dinner.


 
The table was beautifully laid and so was the menu, which was handwritten in Japanese, so we were completely oblivious to what we were about to eat.  But when in Rome (or Tokyo) you do as the Romans (Japanese) do so we just tucked in.
 
The courses just kept coming and I lost count in the end. The food was delicious and as I love fish there was no complaints from yours truly.  The Japanese beer was also good but the Sake was even better - just as well we had a bus back to the hotel.
 
 
 
To round the evening off we had the traditional Japanese rendition of  'Happy Birthday', complete with cake, our Race Director's Assistant Lisa Crampton.
 
 
 
The meal was a great introduction to Japan and I look forward to spending some more time in this wonderful country next October.
 





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Monday, 12 November 2012

Picture of the Week: Big Stopper in Berwick

Earlier this year I purchased a Lee Filters 'Big Stopper' 10x Neutral Density filter, which increases the exposure time by 10 times.  Anything moving in the picture is blurred and for landscapes this means the clouds and water take on a surreal effect.
 
Here are two shots of the sunrise in Berwick on Tweed last week.  The first is a 30 second exposure and you can clearly see the effect of the slow exposure.
 
Nikon D700 - 17-35mm f2.8 - 30s @ f13 - ISO 100

The second shot is a straight picture of the sunrise from the same point but with a longer lens to highlight the sunrays coming through the clouds.  The shutter speed for this shot was 1/1600th of a second.
 
Nikon D700 - 80-200 f2.8 - 1/1600 @ f11 - ISO400
 

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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fuji San

In the past 8 weeks I have been lucky enough to visit four countries on business - Brazil, Bahrain, Japan and China - but the one I was most looking forward to was the FIA WEC event at Fuji International Speedway in Japan. 

The circuit is located in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which dominates the skyline.  Unfortunately with the 'world tour' schedule being so intense I didn't get the opportunity to visit the mountain but there was plenty of opportunity to photograph it from afar.  Next year we will visit Fuji in October again and this time the schedule will allow some extra days to explore a bit further afield and hopefully the mountain will have its trademark snow cap which was just becoming visible the day we left for the airport.
 
Sunset behind Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji Facts
 
Mount Fuji, with an elevation rise of 12,388 feet, is the 35th most prominent mountain in the world. It has a circumference of 78 miles and a diameter of 30 miles. Its crater is 820 feet deep and has a surface diameter of 1,600 feet.

Mount Fuji has long been a sacred mountain. The native Ainu revered the great peak. Shintoists consider the peak sacred to the goddess Sengen-Sama, who embodies nature, while the Fujiko sect believes the mountain is a being with a soul. A shrine to Sengen-Sama is on the summit. Japanese Buddhists believe the mountain is the gateway to a different world. Mount Fuji, Mount Tate, and Mount Haku are Japan's "Three Holy Mountains."
 
mushroom cloud cap


Mount Fuji, one of the world's most beautiful mountains, is Japan's most popular attraction. It's loved for its beauty and symmetry, and has been painted and photographed by generations of artists. Springtime is perhaps the most beautiful time of the year to see Fuji. The snow-covered mountain is framed by pink cherry blossoms, giving Fuji the name Konohana-Sakuahime, which means "causing the blossom to brightly bloom."
 
Mount Fuji dominates the skyline around the circuit
 
Mount Fuji is the most climbed mountain in the world with over 100,000 people trekking to the summit every year. Unlike many sacred mountains, people make pilgrimages to climb the peak. About 30% of climbers are foreigners, with the rest Japanese.
 

CLICK HERE for more information on Mount Fuji
 


The view from my hotel window
Mount Fuji covered in cloud - which is normally the case

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Friday, 9 November 2012

Autumn Gold

 
A beautiful morning was the scene for a walk in the Vale of Belvoir to capture some of the autumn colours. I headed to Jubilee Walk which traverses the Vale through the woods close to Belvoir Castle.
 
Armed with both my Nikon D700, with the 17-35 F2.8 and 50mm f1.4 lenses, and the Fujifilm X100 I set about capturing the scenes I came across on the woodland trails, stopping occassionally to take a close up of the yellow and gold leaves.
 
Here are some of the results -


 







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